The Passion according to St Matthew

by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) 

“music composed for the church is not to be too long and  must never have the character of an opera.”

This quote, from Bach’s contract with the municipal authorities in Leipzig, where he took up residence in 1723 as Kantor of St Thomas’s church and Civic Director of Music for the city, is on display in the Bachhaus Museum in his birthplace of Eisenach. Bach’s response to this, in writing the St Matthew Passion, was to produce a piece which is, in all but name, an opera which lasts for just over three hours.

As things stood on April 11th 1727 (Good Friday as it happens, and the date of the first performance of the St Matthew Passion), Leipzig was the centre of the printing and book industry in Germany, had a renowned university and, most importantly in this context, was a formidable stronghold of uncompromising orthodox Lutheranism, rejecting anything which caused its inhabitants to stray from the straight and narrow. The pious city fathers had closed the opera house in 1720, a mere twenty years after its opening, because it was perceived to be a source of inappropriate entertainment. 

The St Matthew passion has character roles for a number of significant people.  These range from the evangelical personification of St Matthew himself, down to lowly handmaidens. There is a plot which is moved along by recitative. There are arias which comment on the action and give us both insight into a character’s reaction to the events of the plot and also the opportunity to reflect. There is a chorus which gives the work context, acting variously as disciples, protagonists, the angry mob in the streets of Jerusalem, and the faithful believers and supporters of Christ. There is drama of the highest order, and there is music which meticulously and skilfully captures, enhances and vivifies that drama. Every word is sung. On show is the whole gamut of human emotion: jealousy; doubt; guilt; remorse; hatred; anger; courage; fear; suspicion; contrition; longing; desolation; forgiveness; and, perhaps above all, overwhelming love. Also present are disappointment; intimidation; humiliation; violence; bribery; mockery; betrayal; suicide; assault; murder; entombment; and utter despair.  The St Matthew Passion is the opera Bach might have written had the city fathers in Leipzig not denied him the opportunity.

This said, however, one cannot approach a work like the St Matthew Passion without being aware that it is deeply rooted in the context of the Reformation, a fundamental constituent of Christianity that was already 200 years old when the work was written. Of the numerous reforms across Europe, Luther’s Protestant Reformation was by far the most important. Prompted in part by Rome’s literal “selling of souls” for hard cash (known in the Catholic Church as “indulgences”) in order to finance work on the building of the giant basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, the outraged Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), a monk and professor of theology, began to re-evaluate church doctrine point by point. 

Luther didn’t intend to create a new church, merely to reform the existing one. However, political events, including the desire of several influential German princes to break away from Roman doctrine, led to a complete rupture with Rome and Luther’s excommunication from the Catholic Church. The views of Pope Leo X, who held himself in self-appointed power over souls in purgatory, were incompatible with Luther’s re-evaluation. Three of the main Lutheran doctrines state, firstly, that only faith can save (and certainly not cash), secondly, that there is no intermediary between God and man, and, thirdly, that the sole point of reference for Christian belief is the biblical text – all of which ideas were at odds with contemporary thinking in the Roman See. In 1648, after the thirty years war (the Catholic counter-revolution), the religious situation in Germany was, broadly speaking, Reformed Germany in the north, and Catholic Germany in the south, although there were other currents and tensions in amongst this. Bach had to adapt his compositional style each time he relocated; in Leipzig, for example, he was obliged to rebut the Calvinism practised in Köthen, his previous place of residence. 

Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2012 Aberdeen Bach Choir

Bach in Leipzig ⇒